There was an audible gasp during the annual Mayor's Breakfast in January when Mayor Tish Colombi told the crowd that Yampell Jewelers had closed its doors after 83 years in Haddonfield.
Then there was word the news of Yampell's demise was premature. That the business would soon reconstitute across the street in a smaller, less expensive space.
But that didn't happen and some customers publicly complained they couldn't find Yampell to get back family heirlooms that were being repaired when the shop was shuttered.
All of that seemed like a distant memory during a recent, sunny weekday on Kings Highway. A new jewelry shop called Haddonfield Fine Jewelry opened its doors this week and two familiar faces were inside.
Sam Yampell and his longtime shop manager Sam Temple were all smiles this week inside their new jewelry shop at 147 Kings Highway East, next to The Little Tuna restaurant. It opened Tuesday without much fanfare, pretty much word of mouth, with Temple personally calling formerly loyal customers and inviting them in.
Yampell, 44, is the heir to the family business, but he's no longer the owner and the family name is not on the shingle out front. His lifelong buddy, Tom Unfreed, actually owns this business. Yampell is still ensnared in a court proceeding with Fulton Bank over the assets of his shuttered shop, including the venerable family name.
Meanwhile, he's behind a jewelry counter again on Kings Highway, where he's been for most of his life. He still has jewelry that was never picked up by customers when he went out of business eight months ago. He was able to hold on to items that were not financed, such as customers' repairs. Now, he Temple and Unfreed hope to build on the friendships and expertise they grew for decades, under a new name, in a pared down shop, just in time for the holidays.
"I feel extremely enthusiastic," Yampell said quietly, leaning against the wall of his new shop. "I feel like I'm regaining my identity. I haven't been able to do what I do for the last eight months."
But he's still not out of the woods.
"I still have issues with the bank situation," he said. "You still won't see the Yampell name on our new shop. I went through the wallowing in self-pity and public embarrassment. I felt like I let my family down."
After the shop closed in January, Yampell was reduced to meeting up with customers in the Wegmans parking lot to return items. Temple was despondent and on unemployment, even though he still took calls from longtime customers and tried to arrange the return of their jewelry.
He said he's happy to be back at work and his wife is happy to have him out of the house.
"I felt that somehow or other we could get something done," Temple said. "Thanks to Thomas, it happened."
Childhood buddy comes to the rescue
Unfreed and Yampell have known each other since they were 6 years old, growing up in Cherry Hill. Unfreed had worked as a manager for UPS for 24 years. But when one of his best buds was down and out, he came to the rescue.
"It was a good business opportunity," Unfreed, 44, said. "We had a good customer base. Your name has been synonymous with good jewelry for 80-plus years. It's a trust factor that comes along with it."
Unfreed is still upbeat, even without the Yampell name on the shingle.
"I've got the two Sams here," he said with a laugh.
"Tom and I have know each other for a long time," Yampell said. "He saw over the summer, customers still reaching out to us for advice, expertise and direction for their jewelry needs."
Yampell said he thought long and hard about his lifelong friendship with Unfreed, before agreeing to him financing his return. They both agree their new business is on better footing with a paired down selection of jewelry, in a smaller store and with an emphasis on jewelry, watch repair and servicing the needs of longtime customers.
They have less overhead and Unfreed believes the economy is recovering and they can carry on a nearly century-old family tradition, even without the family name.
"Things can happen that are unexpected, that are unfortunate, that tests people's character and strength," Yampell said. "But with positive reinforcement, support and the desire, anyone can achieve or re-achieve great things."